Family Acceptance Conference Brings Youth, Parents Together

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Queer youth homelessness and suicide, anti-gay bullying and ways in which parents can support gender variant children were some of  the subjects covered in Utah Pride Center’s first annual Family Acceptance Conference, held Oct. 8–10 at the Sheraton Salt Lake City Hotel.

Although the conference itself kicked off on Oct. 8 with a workshop about preventing youth suicides held by The Trevor Project, the bulk of programming was held Saturday. One of the first breakout sessions was a presentation about the Massachusetts Commission on GLBT Youth, a groundbreaking program which surveys queer youth in the state about their experiences in school, which include instances of anti-gay and anti-transgender bullying and suicide attempts. Launched in 1992 with the cooperation of Republican Gov. Governor William F. Weld, the program was dissolved in 2006 and reincorporated as an independent agency.

Nonetheless, said commission Vice Chair Ed Byrne, the commission still issues an annual report about the risk factors facing queer youth in schools and makes policy recommendations to legislators. Although Utah has no comparable program, he noted that the Utah Pride Center has long been interested in the commission’s work.

Other workshops throughout the day included a smaller version of The Trevor Project’s Lifeguard Workshop, which Dave Reynolds, the project’s senior public policy and research manager, gave Friday; a workshop for parents about supporting gender variant children; and another presentation given by Reynolds about The Trevor Project and the ongoing “public health and social justice crisis” of queer youth suicides.

During one of the afternoon sessions, attorney Carolyn Reyes and Utah Pride Center HIV Prevention Youth Program Coordinator Myles Davis held a workshop on recognizing intersectionality — or the multiple aspects of an individual’s identity, which include such factors as race, gender presentation, sexual orientation, religion and ability. To illustrate how easily and wrongly people make judgments about others, Reyes had two participants line up the rest of the audience on what the two perceived as a spectrum of masculine to feminine. Reyes then divided the room up into two groups and asked members of each to discuss how aspects of their identity overlapped. For example, one of her questions focused on the ways in which participants’ ethnic communities supported them.

At the closing of the day, child welfare expert Rob Woronoff discussed how his industry moved from being unaware of the needs of queer youth in the early 1980s to fully supporting queer youth today. He traced this development from the founding of the first group homes for homeless gay and lesbian teens in the mid-80s through a number of watershed papers and publications — including keynote speaker Caitlyn Ryan’s Family Acceptance Project — to “listening sessions” held by social workers and child welfare professionals in 13 U.S. cities in the mid 2000s. There gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth were able to talk candidly about the issues they faced in their schools and homes.

“We wanted to hear what as going on, but we wanted to hear what was going on from the young [LGBT] people,” he said.

One of the most popular of these sessions, said Woronoff, was held in Salt Lake City at the request of Missy Bird, now the executive director of Utah’s Planned Parenthood Action Council.

Thanks to the Utah Pride Center’s cultural competency workshops, Woronoff added, Utah is one of only two U.S. states that now trains all of its social workers on the issues faced by gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth.

The conference’s keynote speech was given by Caitlyn Ryan, director of the groundbreaking Family Acceptance Project at San Francisco State University. Ryan’s project, which works to provide culturally relevant materials to educate families about supporting their gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender children.

Ryan, who was the National Association of Social Worker’s ‘Social Worker of the Year’ in 1988, said that she was honored to speak.

“The Utah Pride Center is among the most progressive associations in the country working on this issue [helping families accept queer youth],” she said.

Ryan then explained that her research had unearthed several shocking facts about the effects of familial rejection on gay, lesbian and bisexual youth (research on transgender youth, she noted, is still sparse). For example, she said that rejecting behaviors by families, including denying their queer children access to gay friends and positive portrayals of gay people, actually impacted these youths’ mental health as drastically as did physical abuse. Less dramatically, her research discovered that queer children rejected by their parents were at a higher risk for mental illness than those whose families accepted them.

“I know all of you in the room know that, and many of you live it, but we were never able to make those empirical connections until now, and that’s what’s so exciting,” she said.

Ryan said she also found that most parents who engaged in a number of rejecting ways with their queer children did so not out of hatred, but out of a desire to protect their children from societal homophobia. This conclusion lead the project to reject the current model of care for queer youth, which does not involve families, in favor of one that attempts to teach families ways in which they can accept — or at least support — their gay, lesbian and bisexual children.

“If we’re ever going to help parents and caregivers who are rejecting, we need to do it with compassion and let them understand the consequences of their behavior [such as putting their children at risk for substance abuse and suicide attempts] while respecting their values, faith traditions and their humanity,” she said.

One of the ways in which FAP is attempting to further educate families is through DVDs which detail an actual family’s process in coming to accept a gay or lesbian child. Due to funding shortages, Ryan said the project has only produced a handful of such videos so far, including one depicting a Hispanic family which Ryan showed to attendees.

“We have to tell these stories,” she said. “There’s a myth that socially conservative families, or families of color can’t accept their children, and that isn’t what we found in our work. Every family is capable of supporting their LGBT child.”

The conference also included a vibrant youth track with programming for attendees age 24 and under. Tracks included how to build partnerships and networks of support between youth and adults, how to fight exclusivity in activism and how to best come out to parents and caregivers.

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